MONDAY 9 OCT 2017 3:31 PM


The past decade has seen a steep increase in the reliance of brands on social media output. With platforms including, but not limited to, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, the possibilities for communications and marketing are more far-reaching than ever before. Yet this can present a new set of problems. With their potential audience also seemingly endless, brands are increasingly using influencers, or ‘micro-influencers,’ to target their products, consolidate their brand messaging and identify potential customers with more ease. The technique behind this, however, means ethical questions around finance, trust and transparency are coming to light.

Problems of trust are reportedly arising due to an increase in the lack of transparency about the relationship between the influencer and the product. This is particularly when the ‘influencer’ is being paid to use or showcase certain brands in their social media activity – which often attracts thousands of views and shares. With some influencers not clarifying the relationships between themselves and the brand, or clearly labelling their product use as an advert, the UK-based Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has called for brand-influencer links to be made more explicit.

 An article published on the Guardian website describes the sharp increase in complaints made to the ASA over the past four years, based on the lack of integrity used by ‘influencers’ on social media platforms. Journalist Sarah Marsh reports, “Figures reveal that there were 1,824 complaints about content on social networking sites in 2016, up 193% from 622 in 2012… The ASA put the rise down to the growing number of advertisers using platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram as their popularity grows.”

However, the recent action taken by the ASA indicates the problems implicit with the growth of social media are being taken seriously. UK-based professional body, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), has welcomed the ASA’s response, regarded as an important step in a corporate environment increasingly reliant on transparency and the communication of trust.

CIPR president, Jason MacKenzie Found. Chart.PR, FCIPR, says, “The growth of influencers on social media offers PR professionals new opportunities. But those opportunities come with responsibilities. The public have a right to know the difference between authentic endorsements and paid-for content.”

He continues, “Working on behalf of an employer or clients to generate content from influencers who don’t reveal when they are being paid to promote a product, service or brand is against the CIPR Code of Conduct. Ethical conduct has never been more critical to PR and I'd urge anyone unsure of the rules to seek support from the CIPR, ASA or Competition and Markets Authority.”

Given the recent difficulties faced by the PR industry in the field of ethics and moral judgements, it is paramount for influential bodies to condemn malpractice in highly visible media environments. Speaking to the Guardian, the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) says, “It’s vital that anyone getting paid for endorsing or promoting products online makes that clear. Unclear online endorsements can mislead shoppers and damage businesses playing by the rules.”

“The CMA has been leading the way in this area with its international partners to help stop fake and misleading online reviews and endorsements. We’ve already carried out two enforcement cases against social media and marketing companies in the UK for misleading practices, and we’re going further to protect online shoppers by providing clearer guidelines to businesses and marketing companies on their responsibilities under the law.”

With the growth of brands and influencer relationships showing no signs of slowing, serious thought is needed on how the standards expected by the ASA, customers and ethically-sound brands can be upheld. Clearly striving for strict ethical and moral standards should be the priority of all concerned.